Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Using Technology to Teach Music

I've been thinking a lot lately about the mindful use of technology in my classroom. It's no secret that I'm, well, a big nerd. Unlike many people my age, I have been using computers extensively since the age of 5 when my family purchased an Apple II+. I was chatting on a BBS with a 1200 baud modem when I was 9, when parents' biggest cyber-worry was that Pac-Man would rot their kids' brains. At 11 I used Basic to program my computer to play my Suzuki violin tunes in a monotonous sine wave. I'm a gadget person and love to try out all things new, yet can be alarmed like any other teacher or parent when kids become so immersed in technology that they aren't reading books, playing outside, or learning how to find information without Google. Over the last week, I've come up with five points that define my ideal use of technology in the classroom. I'd love to hear your input in the comments!

Using Keynote to teach ukulele to young students
1) Technology should never be used only for technology's sake. I believe it is essential to build bridges to the high-tech world our kids are growing up in. However, I also believe it is better to use no technology at all than to use technology for busywork or babysitting. In the same way, while presentation software like Powerpoint or Keynote has plenty of valid uses (for instance, in music education it's very useful for displaying lyrics, chords, or sheet music for the whole class to see), using it exactly like a traditional blackboard is not exactly technology integration. On the other hand, using an interactive whiteboard allows teacher and students to manipulate words, shapes, music notes, etc. well beyond the capabilities of the chalk equivalent.

A screenshot from Sibelius Groovy Shapes, for lower schoolers
2) Technology should usually be transparent, especially in the younger grades. For instance, I look forward to using an interactive whiteboard to help children drag sound-producting music notes, instruments, shapes, etc. around to help them learn how music is put together with all of their senses. More than any traditional method, children of all learning styles are being served with visual, audial, and kinesthetic experiences. This does NOT in any way replace singing and playing instruments, but brings together students' musical knowledge in a unique way that fits with the high-tech world they're growing up in. I don't have students sitting in front of computers until Middle School, when they have the skills and knowledge to work independently in highly interactive programs or websites such as GarageBand or Noteflight. Even then, students are recording in acoustic sounds and tracks, visiting each other's computers to share ideas, and using MIDI keyboards to input music. The computer is just a tool to put it all together.

3) Technology should make your life easier, not harder. Of course, just like any new teaching technique or other professional development area, it will take time and work to learn how to use and integrate a new piece of technology into the classroom. However, if more class time is spent on technical difficulties than learning, perhaps it's not the right method for the task. For example, my middle school World Music class created a wiki through Wikispaces. We spent most of one class period learning how to use the wiki and perform effective research on the web. After that, the students used their computer time well and rarely had trouble with the technology (effective research was another matter!). After that success, I used a wiki in my GarageBand class for the students to post their completed projects. It turned out that the skills that were easy to learn in the context of a more "academic" class were confusing and time consuming in a music creation class. We spent way too much class time figuring out how to use the tool that was supposed to make class easier, taking away from the musical experience. Now I know about SoundCloud and other sites specifically designed for this kind of use, so next time I teach GarageBand, we'll get that wasted class time back and kids will not feel frustrated that their hard work isn't being shared properly.
A partial page of the Middle School World Music Wiki, created by a 6th-grader
4) Online ethics is a difficult but ESSENTIAL part of using technology in the classroom. For younger students, the most common problem I've had so far is wandering off the task into another program or website--much like my preferred misbehavior in elementary school of sneaking a novel inside my textbook. The dreaded issues are those that arise as children discover social networking and the wonders of Internet links. LIMITS are extremely important, but there is no way to cover every possible issue with limits. Really, the mean or dangerous or sneaky behaviors kids tend to engage in online are no different than tweens' and teens' more traditional explorations, except for the huge distinction that they are PUBLIC, LASTING, and FAR-REACHING. Developing brains are not capable of understanding risk and long-term consequences in the same way that mature brains do (think about that when your teenager starts driver's ed, eek!). Clear rules and consequences are the responsibility of both teachers and parents, but children also need to learn WHY these things are so important, and why cyberbullying, online chatting with strangers, etc. can have a much more lasting and negative effect than the offline equivalent. And, like any experimental tween/teen behavior, kids will push the limits even when you think they have a clear understanding of why they shouldn't.

5) Knowledge is power. We are still in the very beginning stages of learning how technology affects the brain, learning, and community. It is so important for teachers and parents to stay informed without panicking when a study shows that brainwaves change when kids look at a screen, or that early technology use negatively impacts handwriting, as these are just tiny pieces of the entire puzzle. Technology will not go away, but it will transform more quickly than we can imagine. Already, we're talking about how much more open and interactive the iPad can be for many educational applications than the laptop, and who knows what the next innovation will be. Our kids are growing up in this world and we can't stop them--we can only serve as temporary guides on their journey. I don't want my kids or anyone else's going out there alone!

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